Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice in the American canon—a writer whose works are hard to categorize, often straddling the space between literature and science fiction, and filled with cutting satire and dark humor. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's reputation and impact on American writing and reading will continue to grow steadily and increase in relevance as new insights are made.

Vonnegut was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. In the Second World War, he became a German prisoner of war and was present during the bombing of Dresden. This experience provided inspiration for his most successful and influential novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut—admired as much for his views and his "Vonnegutisms" as for his publications—wrote extensively in many forms, including novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, and correspondence, some of which was published posthumously.

A lifelong friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, Dan Wakefield both edited and wrote the Introduction to the bestselling collection of Vonnegut's personal correspondence, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. In addition, Wakefield is the author of the memoir New York in the Fifties, which was made into a documentary film, as well as Returning: A Spiritual Journey. He created the NBC prime time series "James at Fifteen" and wrote the script for the movie based on his novel Going All The Way, starring Ben Affleck.

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Selected Works of Kurt Vonnegut

The Selected Works of Kurt Vonnegut is a collection of noteworthy science-fiction titles penned by a beloved American author. Considered by most to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut’s works offers profound insight into the human condition with words of charm and wit steeped in the rhythms of the everyday and in the extraordinary.
This collection includes two of his acclaimed novels, Cat’s Cradle and Galapagos, rounded off by two short stories, The Big Trip Up Yonder and Unready to Wear. In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut’s fourth novel published in 1963 that explores themes including religion, technology and science with a satirical eye. Galapagos is Vonnegut's meditation on Darwinism, fate, and the essential irrelevance of the human condition. In The Big Trip Up Yonder, Kurt Vonnegut asks what would happen to human society if there was no death? In Kurt Vonnegut’s world, immortality isn’t exactly the gift it’s cracked up to be. Unready to Wear takes readers to the far future, where humanity has evolved to the point that the "spirit" can transcend the body. But there’s a cultural backlash from those who want to return to the body—and believe the spirit should stay there.

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Bagombo Snuff Box

Here, Kurt Vonnegut’s final short story collection--Bagombo Snuff Box (1999)--we have combined early and rather more obscure stories which had not appeared earlier. Drawn largely from the 1950s and the slick magazine markets which Vonnegut had from the beginning of his career in the postwar period demonstrated an uncanny ability to sell, these stories show clearly that Vonnegut found his central themes early on as a writer. More, he had been able to place stories in great consumer magazines like Colliers (that his good friend and college classmate Knox Burger was editing Colliers during this time was perhaps no small factor in Vonnegut’s success). There were only a handful of science fiction writers of Vonnegut’s generation who were able to sell in such a broad manner outside of the genre during the ‘50s, but it was this success that allowed Vonnegut the consistent denial that he was not a science fiction writer at all.

Vonnegut’s themes--folly, hypocrisy, misunderstanding--cycle through these stories although with perhaps somewhat less bitterness than what had come before. Even through the screen or scrim of magazine taboos, Vonnegut’s voice is singular, infused by disaffection and wit. Most of Vonnegut’s characters stagger through the plot full of misapprehension, cowardice, and self-delusion. In "Thanasphere," the achievement of space travel becomes a means of communicating with the dead (and for that reason the project is abandoned). In "Mnemonics," a forgetful protagonist is given a drug that prompts him to remember everything with the exception of an unrequited crush. This late collection of Vonnegut’s work clearly shows the unifying themes of his work, which were present from the very outset, among them, his very despair.

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Player Piano

Player Piano (1952), Vonnegut’s first novel, embeds and foreshadows themes which are to be parsed and dramatized by academians for centuries to come. His future society--a marginal extrapolation, Vonnegut wrote, of the situation he observed as an employee of General Electric in which machines were replacing people increasingly and without any regard for their fate--is mechanistic and cruel, indifferent to human consequence, almost in a state of merriment as human wreckage accumulates. Paul Proteus, the novel’s protagonist, is an engineer at Ilium Works and first observes with horror and then struggles to reverse the displacement of human labor by machines.

Ilium Works and Paul’s struggles are a deliberately cartoon version of labor’s historic and escalating struggle to give dignity and purpose to workers. The novel embodies all of Vonenegut’s concerns and what he takes to be the great dilemma of the technologically overpowered century: the spiritual needs of the population in no way serve the economies of technology and post-technology. Vonnegut overlies this grotesque comedy over tragedy, disguising his novel in the trappings of goofiness.

Not published--at Vonnegut’s insistence--as science fiction, the novel was nonetheless recognized and praised by the science fiction community which understood it far better than a more general readership, a dilemma which Vonnegut resentfully faced throughout his career. Bernard Wolfe’s dystopian Limbo and Player Pianowere published in the same year to roughly similar receptions; two "outsiders" had apotheosized technophobia as forcefully as any writer within the field. Throughout his career, Vonnegut was forced to struggle with his ambivalence about science fiction and his own equivocal relationship with its readers.

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Kurt Vonnegut